A post at Our Bodies Our Blog reminded me forcefully of my own experiences as a breastfeeding mom in the early 80s. Christine C. referenced this commentary by Aisha Qaasim at womensEnews. Qaasim talks about breastfeeding her two month old daughter and hearing a nearby woman loudly state “That is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen.” Says Qaasim,

A nameless woman at a mall was somehow the one to find the insult that I could not toss onto the neat pile of words that would never hurt me. It did hurt. And, these attitudes toward breastfeeding are making our children sick, especially African American children, who are the least likely to get the benefit of mothers’ milk.

It is disheartening to me that 25 years after I faced down those same stares and comments, mothers who choose to feed their children naturally are still being subjected to the hateful, hurtful comments of other women. It floors me to hear my younger daughter’s friends lightly declare that they’re not going to breastfeed because ‘it will make my boobs sag’ or because ‘my boyfriend doesn’t want to share’. I’m boggled by pediatricians who shrug off questions about whether breast is best by handing over samples of formula. I’m fond of pointing out where ‘we’ve come a long way, baby’ – and this is one of those places. Unfortunately, we’ve come a long way BACKWARDS.

Maybe my experiences were unusual, or maybe I surrounded myself with supportive people to help me counter the societal non-support for my decision to breastfeed back then. These are some of my memories:

When Cara was a month old, we took her with us to Mass for the first time. Just as the priest began his sermon, she began to fuss and fidget, and rather than subject the congregation to her in full-fledged scream mode, I slipped out of the church to nurse her in the car. I returned in time for Communion, but hovered at the back of the church where I could nurse her more discreetly. After the service, Father approached me and asked why I’d left, so I explained, and added that I hadn’t wanted to offend anyone by nursing her in church. His response: “If anyone is offended, send them to me. I don’t believe the Lord wants any child to go hungry in His House.”

My mother had been discouraging about my decision to breastfeed. She kept asking why, and telling me how much more convenient and healthy it would be to feed with formula. I don’t know what changed her mind, but one of my fondest memories is of the day we went out to lunch and I excused myself to go nurse Cara in the rest room. She gave me this completely outraged look and said, “You will not feed my granddaughter in a filthy restroom. You sit right here and if anyone has a problem with it, they can deal with ME.” (and if you knew my mother, you’d understand what a potent threat THAT was). A year later, she shook her head in dismay as she reported that my sister-in-law was choosing formula over breast milk. “Doesn’t she know that breastfeeding is best for the baby? Maybe if you talk to her, Deb…”

During a family gathering, I retired to my mother-in-law’s bedroom out of consideration for the older members of the family who might be offended. My brother-in-law, assuming that I was changing the baby, wandered in after me and stopped dead in the doorway when he saw what I was doing. He then apologized, turned around – and proceeded to continue our conversation WITH HIS BACK TURNED TO ME. It was possibly one of the funniest moments ever – my brother-in-law standing there telling me how wonderful it was that I was nursing my daughter and how he’d wished his wife had – while he was unable to even look at me while I did it. I do know, though, that when his daughters became pregnant, he advocated for them to breastfeed his grandchildren.

Those were the people who gave me the strength to deal with women like the one on the bus who glared daggers at me while I nursed my daughter until I pointedly asked her if she’d rather listen to the baby scream for the next twenty minutes. It makes me sad and angry to know that 25 years later, women are still given misinformation about breastfeeding and their baby’s health, still being discouraged by society and culture and still being disparaged for choosing to feed their children the way that they are intended to be fed. And it makes me even angrier to know that Qaasim is dead on right when she puts her finger on the why:

America’s cultural obsession with the breast as a sexual object undermines the U.S Health and Human Services Department’s goal of having 50 percent of infants breastfed exclusively at 6 months of age.

If anything, we should be more disturbed as a society by the sight of breasts filled to bursting with silicone and perched unnaturally on collarbones than the sight of a woman breastfeeding a child.

As long as we, as a culture, objectify the perky, immature 18 year old breast as the ultimate sex object, we are not mature enough to recommend and support the best choices for our children. It’s important that we nurture and support and encourage mothers to make the best choices for their babies by presenting breastfeeding as the healthiest and most attractive choice rather than looking on the nursing mother as ‘disgusting’.


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